My wife used to run an after-school program for elementary school kids. She got first-rate training in that job, with most ideas boiled down to a single sentence one could remember when up to one’s eyeballs in third-graders. One such lesson was this:

Don’t pick up the rope.

As in, when a child tries to initiate a power struggle with you, visualize a game of tug-of-war. And don’t pick up your end of the rope.

It turns out this is good advice for communicating with adults, too. While adult life does feature the occasional power struggle, the message here is more general: we don’t have to respond to all incoming communication, especially if it wasn’t sent in good faith.

We communicate all day long, and most of that communication is pleasant and constructive. But some is not. We have all been the recipient of a passive-aggressive email or snarky face-to-face comment. Is a response required? I don’t know about you, but I feel uneasy letting anything go unanswered.

Yet watch someone who’s a real pro at communication—a veteran politician, a career public administrator, a grizzled after-school program director—and you’ll see that person picking their battles, responding strategically, and generally using communication as a tool to achieve their goals.

Silence is an option, and so is a delayed response. Have the discipline to pause and think.

Don’t pick up the rope.